Deep retrofit improves energy efficiency, offers solution to sagging construction industry

Jeff Wilson has an idea. While there is much discussion in political circles that a green industry is the key to pulling key economies out of the current economic slump, Wilson, sees a very practical win-win scenario.

"The building industry (in the United States) is idled", Wilson said. "If we go beyond simple weatherization, the construction market could grow exponentially."

Wilson is a television and Internet celebrity with HGTV and the DIY Network, television networks with national distribution in the United States. His series, The Greened House Effect , is a hit with viewers of both cable channels.

The premise is simple. He wanted to perform a deep energy retrofit of his Ohio home. The house, a Cape Cod style home, is more than 70 years old, very drafty and cold.

"It has 1,000 square feet of conditioned space,” Wilson said. "And I use the term conditioned space loosely."

The first step in the retrofit was to seal the envelope of his house. Wilson replaced rotted, old timber with engineered wood products, which rely on smaller, fast-growing trees to improve sustainability. He utilized two and a half inch spray foam insulation and replaced double-paned windows with triple-pane, krypton gas-filled windows. He also replaced all the doors with newer insulated doors.

While Ohio has brutal winters, Wilson was also concerned about the heat of summer. To that end, he installed radiant barrier technology in his attic. This can block more than 90 percent of radiant heat from entering the home.

The interior of his house received a retrofit, as well.

Wilson installed highly-efficient mechanical systems which included a heating and air system that utilizes a variable speed motor rather than the traditional “start and stop” motors common in less-efficient systems. He included an air recovery ventilator, to draw in fresh air from the outside. He said this was necessary as the house was sealed so tightly that the air inside would become stale.

All lighting was replaced with LED lighting or compact fluorescent lighting. A tankless water heater was installed and the old oven was replaced with a convection oven, which uses 25 percent less energy to bake food.

"There were a variety of little things we retrofitted", Wilson said. "Basically, we focused our efforts on areas where energy is used."

His house is primarily fueled by natural gas. However, he installed a 4 kilowatt solar array, which he believes will produce almost as much electricity as he consumes in the home. He is currently in his first winter in the newly retrofit home, but believes a reduction in utility costs of 60 to 90 percent is likely.

Wilson believes that the economic opportunities with retrofits are clear.

"In Ohio, 90 percent of the energy comes from coal", Wilson said. "With a deep energy retrofit, the carbon footprint can be reduced."

What’s more, he believes this type of renovation can jump start a sagging construction energy.

"When I needed timber, I went to the local hardware store", he said. "I bought my appliances at a local store, and purchased my mechanical systems local. I hired contractors, subcontractors, and vendors from right here in my hometown."

Chuck Shinn, PhD., an economist who serves the construction industry, also believes that green energy will revitalize entire trades.

"Energy efficiency is very important", Shinn said. "Baby boomers are starting to think about this due to them going toward fixed incomes." And he said those younger families buying starter homes just expect energy efficiency.

"They’ll force it down builders’ throats", Shinn said. "Millennials (those born between the mid-1970s and 2000) grew up with the green environment and energy efficiency. They simply expect builders and manufacturers to provide it."

Alan Looney, founder and president of custom-home builder Castle Homes in Nashville said energy efficiency has become the norm in construction.

"We’re using more energy-efficient exterior and interior materials", Looney said. He added that green techniques, materials, and mechanical systems are simply becoming expected in new homes.

There is no reason to expect older homes to remain energy dumps, and that is where Wilson thinks this is one direct way that energy efficiency spells real opportunity for struggling industries.

According to Shinn, there are more millenials entering the market than there are baby boomers, and their lifestyle is different. They work from home more often and want to live closer to the center of most cities, where homes are older. However, they demand the lower costs and increased comfort of a highly energy efficient home

Many of these millennials will be purchasing older homes, which might be in the price range of a young twenty-something. However, they’ll expect significant upgrades to meet their green demands.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 80 million homes in the United States are 30-years-old or older.These are homes that were built without regard to energy efficiency and are costly to heat, cool, and run. Wilson believes energy retrofitting older homes is a larger potential market than new home construction in the United States.

Wilson was reluctant to discuss his investment in the deep retrofit, but conceded it was “substantial”. He said he did save some money by doing much of the work himself, and he anticipates additional savings through tax incentives offered by the United States government. He did not provide a timeline as to when he thought the savings might equal his investment. However, the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010, passed by the United States Senate, estimates retrofitted homes will reduce energy costs by $200 to $500 per year.

The Senate also stated that the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010 could generate 168,000 jobs related to deep retrofits.

The United States offers several incentives, which President Barak Obama has extended through 2011. For homeowners, these include a tax credit of $1,500 (U.S.) for the installation of high-efficiency heating and cooling units, stoves, windows, lighting, and roofing materials. The cost of labor to install these items can be included.

Additional credits are available for the use of biodiesel, alternative fuels, and to manufacturers of energy efficient appliances.

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